The Link Between ADHD & Eating Disorders in Women

link between adhd and eating disorders in womenLast month, I was given the honor of being the keynote speaker at a seminar in Athlone, Ireland titled “Women and Girls with ADHD” for Ireland’s ADHD Awareness Month.  My speech focused on the link between ADHD and eating disorders in women and girls.

The seminar took place as scheduled despite a hurricane in central Ireland; unfortunately, many would-be attendees were unable to travel to the event. So for all those who couldn’t make it, and anyone else who needs this valuable information, here are some of the highlights of my speech. The information below applies to both women and girls.

If you live in the New York City area, please contact me for questions about how ADHD counseling or coaching can help you or your daughter. 

Statistics show that women and girls with ADHD have a higher likelihood of eating disorders like bulimia (binge-eating episodes relieved by self-induced vomiting, laxative use, excessive exercise, fasting, etc.) anorexia (restricting food intake, sometimes to the point of starvation), and binge eating (periods of uncontrolled, large amounts of eating).

ADHD and Coexisting Conditions

ADHD doesn’t always travel alone. Women with ADHD are more likely to suffer from other conditions as well, including:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • eating disorders
  • sleep disorders
  • emotional dysregulation — poor temper control, mood swings, and emotional reactivity

ADHD and Eating Disorders

ADHD and eating disorders share some common characteristics. Many women with ADHD lack impulse control, struggle with decision-making, and find it difficult to regulate their emotions. Consequently, they are often unable to properly regulate their food intake and may look for ways to feel in control by binge eating, or avoiding food altogether.

Attention deficits can be related to overeating and unawareness of how much food is being consumed. Food — especially carbohydrates — can also provide a temporary high to women with ADHD, a brief reprieve from the chaos and overwhelm they typically feel.

It’s important to pinpoint the root cause of a woman’s eating disorder, as it may necessitate a different treatment approach.

Depression

Women with ADHD who suffer from depression can find food to be very comforting, as carbohydrates increase serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a chemical neurotransmitter (carries signals along and between nerves) that helps maintain a balanced mood.

Executive functioning deficits can also make it difficult for a woman to monitor and regulate her food intake. Executive functions are goal-directed skills that allow people to use their intelligence effectively in ways such as:

  • organizing, planning, and prioritizing
  • decision-making
  • impulse control
  • social skills awareness
  • consistency and sustaining attention

Difficulty managing one’s time can cause a woman to ignore hunger signals, resulting in binge eating. Impulse control problems and poor decision-making abilities can lead to unhealthy food relationships too.

Anxiety

Women with ADHD who suffer from anxiety may also struggle with anorexia. ADHD can cause a woman to feel overwhelmed and out of control, leading to anxiety. Anorexia is very rigid, so avoiding food can give a woman a sense of control that she otherwise wouldn’t have.

Treatment for ADHD & Eating Disorders

Women and girls with ADHD often feel different and can have difficulty connecting with their peers. Supportive, connected relationships are vital to a woman’s healthy self-esteem and improved cognitive flexibility.

Mindfulness and mindful eating, treatment of ADHD symptoms, treatment of anxiety or depression symptoms, supportive and positive therapy, executive functioning coaching, medications, and more can help treat eating disorders associated with ADHD.

(featured image: daniellehelm, flickr.com)

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